“Morning Glow” by Michael Jackson

This song was originally from the Stephen Schwartz-Bob Fosse musical Pippin, and was later recorded by Michael Jackson during his Motown days. Like most of the songs in Pippin, it was presented ironically in the context of the musical’s plot, but detached from the musical, it comes off as simply a soaring, upbeat pop anthem. And while it failed to do much on the charts, I suspect it forms the model for several later Jackson songs with very similar musical sounds and subject matter…namely, his famous series of so-called ‘Save the World songs’. This means “We Are the World”, “Man In the Mirror” and “Heal the World” all probably owe their existence to a show tune…a reminder that the various fields of music are more interconnected than their devotees often realize, and that you can’t completely separate Broadway’s influence even from Rock-era popular music.

“Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry

With the passing of Chuck Berry, one of the all-time legends of Rock’n’Roll, I thought we should reflect on all that he added to the genre. Whether Chuck Berry actually invented Rock’n’Roll could be debated (there are a couple of other pioneers, particularly Ray Charles and Little Richard, that could make a similar claim), but what is indisputable is that he was the first truly great Rock songwriter. The other pioneering Rock acts like Little Richard were almost entirely performance-oriented; for example, “Tutti Frutti” is a great vehicle for Little Richard’s performing style, but it doesn’t amount to much as an actual composition. Berry, who was both a master of indelible guitar riffs and a brilliant lyricist, wrote the first great Rock songs that retained their greatness no matter who was performing them, which was an incredibly key factor in making the genre sustainable. This song is one of his all-time masterpieces, a tender and touching piece about a man trying to get through to someone named Marie who called him from Memphis, Tennessee. For most of the song it seems like Marie is an ex-girlfriend, but in the last verse it is revealed that she was actually the narrator’s six-year-old daughter. This is a genuinely poetic and beautifully moving song that shows off what Berry was truly capable of as a lyricist. The landscape of modern music would be almost unrecognizable without this great artist’s contribution, and we should all be grateful for his accomplishments both in writing some of the greatest songs of all time and in making so many other great songwriters’ work possible by his influence.

“You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen

In Paul Simon’s rough equivalent to this song off his 2011 album So Beautiful or So What, he posited that coming face to face with the Almighty God would reduce all our questions and protests about the way he runs the world to complete incoherence. While this sounds like a smart insight, perhaps it’s only because Simon, for all his musical genius, isn’t a great enough poet to face down the unimaginable with words alone. But if anyone could perform that feat in our time, it was Leonard Cohen. Here, on the title track and only single from his very last album, Cohen bitterly rips into God himself on the way he handles things in lyrics that are actually powerful and profound enough to do true justice to that concept. It serves, to some degree, as a counterpart and spiritual follow-up to his legendary “Hallelujah”, another song about standing before God and saying your piece. If this was the last testament Cohen would leave on this earth, he certainly went out with a magnificent crash of cosmic yet utterly human anger, and it ranks as one of the greatest artistic achievements of his illustrious career.

“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

Well, now that he isn’t around to see it, Leonard Cohen has finally gotten a charting song on the Hot 100. While this certainly serves as a reminder that we only really appreciate what we have after it’s gone, it still serves as a nicely respectful tribute to his memory. There have been plenty of successful cover versions of this legendary song (including a Pentatonix cover that made the charts at the same time this did), but most of them tend to overemphasize the big, sparkly chorus. Meanwhile, the real glories of this song are the lyrics on the verses, with their biblical allusions and tone of cosmic desperation, which are served better in Cohen’s original than any other version. On top of that, Cohen’s vocal performance is one of the greatest he ever gave…this was the point where his voice was just starting to deepen into the sound of real authority, and his commanding tone on these powerful words is as magnificent as the poetry itself. This is the definitive rendition of one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century, and the fact that it finally got some chart exposure in its original form is perhaps the best of all the positive developments on the charts in the last few years.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Bob Dylan

This was one of Dylan’s very first songs to make any kind of mainstream impact…indeed, it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s covers of this song and “Blowin’ in the Wind” that essentially introduced him to the world. Now, delicately written, poetic songs whose ultimate message is essentially “fuck you” are a staple of Dylan’s work…one of his most famous albums, Blood on the Tracks, is built almost entirely around them…but I’m not sure he ever did it better than this. It’s especially remarkable given that Dylan was only 23 years old at the time of this song’s release…there’s a subtlety and maturity here, and a depth of anger and sadness, that seems vastly beyond his years. This is easily one of the greatest breakup songs in history, and it still ranks as one of Dylan’s all-time classics. And in spite of the exposure provided by the Peter, Paul and Mary cover, this is definitely one of those songs that works best when sung by Dylan himself…Peter, Paul and Mary are undoubtedly better singers, but they’re just too nice to give this song the degree of venom it really needs.

“Shelter From the Storm” by Bob Dylan

Apparently the literary world has finally realized that Bob Dylan, so long written off as a mere ‘popular singer’, is actually the greatest poet of our age, since he was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in literature. This provoked a small uproar among his lesser peers in the literary genre, and while I don’t usually say this, I suspect that this reaction had as much to do with jealousy as it did with conventional snobbery. I imagine that deep down, each of these dissenters knows that Dylan is truly a better writer than they are, and they are furious to be outdone in quality by a mere ‘Rock musician’, much as Virgil Thompson resented the fact that ‘Pop’ songwriter George Gershwin was writing better Classical music than him. And if there’s a song that better demonstrates Dylan’s worthiness as a truly great poet than this one, I can’t think of it. It doesn’t feature the cryptic complexity of a “Desolation Row” or a “Changing of the Guards”, but it is infinitely eloquent in its simple invocation of primal emotions. Taken from Dylan’s gut-wrenching collection of songs about lost love, Blood on the Tracks, this really is one of the most lyrical and moving songs ever written, and its beauty comes almost entirely from Dylan’s perfectly chosen words. The lyrics are full of the evocative quasi-religious imagery Dylan always loved, but they keep coming back to the repeated refrain of “Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm”, creating a perfectly captured archetype of the refuge that is love which is both ecstatic and heartbreaking. Of course, I’m not nearly eloquent enough to do full justice to an analysis of a work this profound, so I will just state that this is that rarity of rarities, a truly perfect composition, and could hold its own with the works of such luminaries as Auden or Wordsworth any day. This song proves, as do countless others in Dylan’s oeuvre, that he is not only a great poet of our time, but probably the single greatest poet currently living, and deserves the recognition he is receiving far more than the envious naysayers who carp about it.

“Gold” by Prince

In commemoration of the late musical legend Prince Rogers Nelson, I thought I would shine some light on one of his lesser-known masterpieces. Now, Prince’s Nineties output has a reputation for being far more uneven that the work of his peak period in the Eighties, but The Gold Experience was definitely one of his better Nineties albums, even if the only track off it anyone seems to remember today is the hit love ballad “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”. And ravishing as that song is, I’d argue that this is the true high point of that album. It features one of his most gorgeous melodies, and shows off his incomparable guitar chops as well as anything in his discography. It also features a surprisingly profound lyric that speaks of artistic integrity and faith and reinstructs the Who’s famous dictum with the rebuttal “What’s the use of being young if you ain’t gonna get old?”, a statement that has become all the more bittersweet with his own passing. It is every bit the equal of his legendary ballad “Purple Rain”, which it strongly resembles, and it’s a true injustice that this song is so much more obscure than its famous predecessor. For many people, this album represents the final burst of greatness Prince would ever achieve, and while I actually think some of his late-career efforts (such as Musicology) are quite underrated, there’s no denying that this epic album closer would have made for a very satisfying climax.

“Rebel, Rebel” by David Bowie

David Bowie’s second and less famous full-scale Rock Opera, Diamond Dogs, was originally supposed to be a direct adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, and while his inability to get the actual rights to the novel ultimately forced him to make some story changes at the last minute, it’s still quite clear where the album’s inspiration lies, and not just because of song titles like “1984”, “Big Brother” and “We Are the Dead”. This song, which became the big hit off the album, was pretty clearly meant to be Julia’s character song, and it still perfectly sums up her character…a born rebel, defiant of gender roles and unashamedly sexual…and her complex relationship with Winston. If you accept Diamond Dogs as a 1984 adaptation, however loose that adaptation wound up being in the final draft, then it is the only successful musical adaptation that material has ever seen, or will ever probably see, despite the fact that there have been several other attempts (both Jonathan Larson and Adam Guettel worked for years on never-finished stage musicals based on the novel). And that David Bowie could pull off the almost inconceivable task of successfully musicalizing one of the most fundamentally unmusical works in all of literature is one of the greatest of all testaments to his genius, proving that he was, among other things, a genius of musical story-telling on the level of the greatest composers of what we more generally think of as ‘musicals’.

“After All” by David Bowie

In the wake of the world’s tragic loss of music God David Bowie, I thought I’d share my impressions of a particular favorite of mine among his songs. The Man Who Sold the World is generally regarded as the first truly great album Bowie would release, but while most of the album is as close to Heavy Metal as Bowie would ever come, this song evokes more of a gentle Folk sound reminiscent of the material on Bowie’s previous album, Space Oddity. Even so, I’m not the only critic who regards this as the album’s high point. The quietly haunting, rusty-squeezebox melody and bedraggled-sounding chorus responding to Bowie’s lines with a mournful “Oh, by jingo” give the song the feel of a sorrowful folk song from some bygone century or bittersweet fantasy world, and the world-weary, philosophy-of-sorrow lyrics are some of the wisest and most beautiful Bowie would ever write (“Live till your rebirth and do what you will/Forget all I’ve said, please bear me no ill”). The song also shows off Bowie’s uniquely beautiful voice as clearly and perfectly as anything he ever recorded, reminding us what a truly exquisite instrument the man had in his younger days. This song is an expression of quiet, deep, unutterable sadness, but there’s something oddly comforting about it even so, so it seems like as good a listening choice as any to commemorate the passing of one of music’s greatest legends.

“Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole

This song was, at the time of its release, a new phenomenon…a ‘virtual duet’ made from the combined voices of legendary singer Natalie Cole and her equally legendary father, who had been dead almost thirty years at the time. It was an incredibly touching tribute to her father’s memory, and it’s worth noting that it has so supplanted Nat’s original recording of the song that you are far more likely to hear this version than Nat’s solo one in almost any context today. The ‘virtual duet’ technique has gotten a bad reputation, but that’s because of blatant misuse, not because it was a bad idea. The problem is that you need a personal connection to the deceased singer you’re duetting with, or you just come across as crass and disrespectful. When you’re singing the virtual duet with your late father, it’s incredibly sweet and heartrending. But when you’re, say, Celine Dion singing a virtual duet with Frank Sinatra, it seems like you’re just co-opting the talent of a legend for your own purposes. It also helps to have a singer with enough emotional range to make a connection with a pre-recorded voice; witness Sinatra’s Duets album (which was recorded during his lifetime, but used the same process of singers duetting with his pre-recorded vocals, rather than actually singing together in person), where the effectiveness of the perceived connection varied severely with the performer in question. Natalie, however, pulls it off to perfection—I don’t know how much of it was because of her artistry and how much was a genuine reaction to what must have been a very emotional experience for her, but she manages to create perfect chemistry with her father’s voice. This is one of the most moving moments in all of recorded music, all the more so now that Natalie has joined her father, and at a time when most of the public was paying more attention to the Grunge and Rap revolutions, it really is a shame that this was relegated to a small niche audience, since it really is one of the defining musical moments of the Nineties.